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Five Keys to the H-1B Debate

with Shyamali Choudhury and Katie Morris

Last week’s research release event for “The Search for Skills: Demand for H-1B Immigrant Workers in U.S. Metropolitan Areas” was a spirited and intelligent debate about national policy combined with some thoughtful analysis by regional actors. The conversation highlighted differing opinions about the need for high-skilled foreign labor, important areas of agreement, as well as the need for further research. Based on this discussion, we’ve identified five keys for future productive, pragmatic debate on the H-1B program. They include:

  • There are things we can agree on. Despite extreme polarization over the H-1B visa program and the need for high-skilled foreign labor, there is plenty that both sides can agree upon. Experts with opinions as diametrically opposed as Vivek Wadhwa and Jared Bernstein agreed that high-skilled foreign workers can be a positive economic force and that the current mechanisms for H-1B workers to obtain green cards need to be improved to maximize this potential. Capitalizing on these areas of agreement is critical to making progress toward reform.
  • Market-based solutions are necessary, but not sufficient. Reform to the H-1B program needs to balance market-based solutions with legislative protections for both foreign and native workers. The right balance of regulation and economic freedom would champion the interests of workers without sacrificing innovation, global competition, and economic growth. A standing commission with stakeholder representation would be an ideal forum to identify and make recommendations toward achieving this balance.
  • State and local issues should not be lost in the debate. Business happens at the metropolitan level. While Congress is gridlocked over immigration reform, metropolitan actors are building businesses. One of the most important contributions of this report is an understanding of how diverse metropolitan economies utilize high-skilled foreign labor. State level policy on immigration is just one example of sub-national innovation on this front—the varying skills needs across regions must be addressed with flexible and responsive federal policy.
  • Public-private partnerships are the most effective way to match labor supply with employer demand. Experts on all sides have called upon employers to get involved in workforce training. Employer engagement in education and training is the best way to ensure that these programs meet the needs of companies. Workforce investment boards, community colleges, and local companies must team together to target training for skills that are valuable in the market. H-1B visa fee funded grants distributed by the ETA have sparked this kind of activity; and the kind of data made available through this report will empower public-private partnerships to be more effective in filling metro-level skill needs.
  • STEM is here to stay. Projected job growth in science, technology, engineering, and math industries indicates that STEM skills will only become more important in the future. The education pipeline needs support and reform in order to meet this need so the United States remains competitive in the global economy. The National Science Foundation works to attract students to pursue high-level STEM degrees, but any higher education efforts depend on middle and high schools to provide the early training and enthusiasm required to succeed in these fields.